Vigilantes in Mexico: Borderline Political Violence?

Photo by Flickr user Pedro Vásquez Colmenares.
Photo by Flickr user Pedro Vásquez Colmenares.

Guest post by Brian J. Phillips

Citizens and security forces repeatedly face off in a new wave of armed confrontations in Mexico – but is it political violence?

This isn’t the issue of drug cartels. Scholars have debated if confrontations between drug trafficking groups and Mexican security forces are criminal insurgency, civil war, or terrorism (see also this and this and this), but much or most of the literature suggests that cartel violence is more criminal than political. The Zetas and Sinaloa organizations want to be left alone to make money, and otherwise do not have policy-related goals.

However, in the past year or so, a new type of bloodshed has emerged: organized vigilantism.

In more than 60 Mexican municipalities, according to my data, armed groups have formed as a reaction to organized crime. These so-called self-defense groups (autodefensas) are often heavily armed, and their firefights with drug traffickers have involved grenades and machine guns.

In some towns, self-defense groups don’t only challenge drug-trafficking organizations, but also the government. In the southwestern states of Guerrero and Michoacán, vigilante groups have “arrested” local police forces, shot up the mayor’s office, and firebombed city hall.

Self-defense groups claim local authorities are colluding with organized crime, or at least are passive toward it, and demand federal intervention.

Is this political violence, in the same vein as terrorism and civil war?

For many scholars, the distinction between criminal and political violence is that the primary goal of the former is making money or otherwise engaging in crime, while primary goal of the latter is political – either change or the status quo. This gets blurry as many insurgent or terrorist groups use criminal means to raise funds, and some political groups transform into purely criminal outfits. However, for most groups, there is a primary goal that can be identified, criminal or political.

With vigilantes it is not as clear. Rosenbaum and Sederberg’s 1970 article describes three types of vigilante motives: social control, regime control, and crime control. The first involves attacking social or political groups, perhaps to preserve the status quo. Regime control vigilantism involves trying to coerce the regime such as through a coup. Both of these phenomena seem political.

Perpetrators of crime control vigilantism, on the other hand, are probably seen by most analysts as basically criminals. The goal of enacting “justice” on criminals is a crime itself, if outside of due process.

What makes the Mexican vigilantes relatively unique, however, is that they do not only confront criminals. They directly challenge local authorities. This at least gets into the grey area around political violence.

Perhaps one barrier to this wave of vigilantism being widely considered “political” is that normally we think of insurgency or civil war as a battle against the central government – either to control it or secede from it.

Mexican self-defense groups have no such beef with the federal government (although sometimes the military clashes with vigilantes), but they do want to control or change local government. In this sense the situation in some Mexican towns could be considered local insurgency.

If this is true, scholars should think more about vigilante violence – when it challenges the government and not simply criminals – as political violence.

Regardless of conceptual discussions, vigilante violence can have serious political implications. (It often indicates government failure, and perhaps for that reason some political scientists do study vigilantism – in Latin America, Africa, or elsewhere.) The criminal violence of the cartels has clearly affected politics as well. At least because of political implications, then, this violence is worthy of our continued attention.

Brian J. Phillips is an Assistant Professor at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics (CIDE).

  1. Maybe it’s just that the circumstances at different levels in Mexico (national, state, city) and in different areas of Mexico decide whether it’s predominantly political or criminal (though I note that all security is political). General descriptions of a nation or movement are very useful to give information quickly and concisely to many people, but it may be completely the opposite of that generalization at a lower level. For example, I think most people would consider America to be a democracy in the 1940s, but should we consider the American south to be a democracy? I’m not so sure that competitive authoritarian wouldn’t be a better description.

  2. Agree with the above comment and would argue that criminal groups absolutely merit attention in the political science realm.

    -Some groups considered ‘criminal’ in Mexico have actually taken on certain behavior that strike me as political. Look no further than the institution of laws and codes of conduct by La Familia Michoacana, and the creation of religious texts by its former leader to see how criminal groups can go much further than making money. Also, the lumping together of the Sinaloa and Zetas organizations in Mexico shrouds the fact that the Zetas make extreme efforts to control populations and territory, which would be more in line with political actors like insurgents. The Sinaloa, by contrast, might be closer to the typical ‘criminal’ who seeks to evade government attention and promote a business-like demeanor.

    -Also over the long-term, I question whether political organization leadership is pursuing political goals to simply seek government change and status quo. Instead I am a bit more cynical and think that organizations can be drawn to pursue political goals to benefit their members materially – which to me is very similar to what criminal organizations do. On a more biological level, the true difference could be a matter of criminal groups and political groups simply choosing different means to meet fundamental human needs (security, sustenance, a group identity). It might also bear mentioning that criminal groups arise out of political dysfunction, so perhaps should not be divorced completely from political analysis.

    Look forward to your thoughts!

    1. Thanks. I definitely agree that some Mexican criminal organizations are more “political” than others. La Familia is a very unusual group, as you point out. Some people have said the Zetas have ultraviolence as an ideology. The diversity of these groups is very interesting indeed. Overall, though, I’d say that they are still all ultimately “criminal groups,” a category to contrast with “political groups” like Hezbollah, the various al Qaedas, the Real IRA, etc. Of course all the political groups are involved in crime, but as a means to raise cash for their political and organizational goals. All groups want to survive, and many of the organizational dynamics apply to all these entities. The rough criminal/political distinction is helpful for a 30,000-foot-high sketch of the landscape. It matters when thinking about solutions, I think. Governments negotiate with political groups, offering political concessions. Solutions for criminal groups are usually different.

      Overall, though, I very much agree that all of these groups are worth more attention from political scientists. The boundaries are fuzzy and there’s a great deal of overlap, and there are political causes and consequences for all the groups.

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